March ‘book to look forward to’: Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men. Caroline Criado Perez

(Chatto).  Kindle edition downloaded 7 March 2019, £9.99

The brief book description added on the Literary Review Calendar of ‘books to look forward to’ for March said:

‘The activist and journalist on the discriminatory consequences of men being treated as the default and women as atypical, in a book that casts new light on homes, workplaces and public buildings’.

Feminism and I unexpectedly tripped over each other in the early 1980’s and without getting into major biography, feminism changed every single element of my existence with enormous and enduring impact. Through the 80’s and 90’s I read every feminist book I could get hold of hitting strident radical outrage and non-violent direct action along the way. For the past 20 or so years, having bought the many and varied t-shirts (some of which have now become cleaning cloths – oh the irony) my interest in such books waned. I read the books I needed to read for my professional life dutifully, to ensure my power-points stayed relevant and current but I had mellowed beyond outrage and indeed, slogan t-shirts. I chose this book from the March ‘books to look forward to’ list because of the others in the non-fiction group it looked a) the least dull and b) my semi-un-conscious bias kicked in.

Everything about this book is quite simply wonderful.

This assertion might be dismissed with a roll of an eye and a weary ‘of course you would say that’ but in fact, the opposite would be true.  I am a well-read feminist and I have read some turkey’s, which frankly did the women’s movement(s) no favors, but this is very certainly not one of them.  I have read enough to know the difference and I loved this book! 

The book considers the absence of women in the data that defines and shapes the algorithms, policies, designs and laws in the world, our understanding of them across time. It considers our lives, opportunities and dangers inherent in it – and by ‘ours’ she means all humans. The ones most disadvantaged by the absence of women in data are of course women who have equipment which doesn’t fit or cannot be safely used because it is not made for their bodies, who cannot use public transport because the standard use which informs timetable planning is that of the male commuter and does not take account of carer responsibility and so very many other examples across the home, the workplace and in general public life. The book makes clear, however, that all of society are disadvantaged by the uni-focused narrative of male defined data sets.

The book has potential to be a preachy call to arms but it is not – Perez manages to make this eminently readable book engaging, humorous and informative.  She takes us to the heart of how we understand our world and in doing so highlights false assumptions and the absence of other perspectives.  At one point she asks (a little tongue in cheek) whether women are even human at all!  Her question comes from analysis of data about the evolution of humankind being predicated on understanding of the centrality of ‘man the hunter’.  What were women doing when humankind was being built, (allegedly), by hunters?  Do we even fit into this narrative and if so, in what ways do we influence that prevailing story?  She gives another example of a warrior skeleton being steadfastly identified and labeled as a male by museum curators, despite indisputable DNA bone analysis showing she was a female, simply on the grounds that she was found with weapons and high ranking afterlife kit.  They apparently were unable to comprehend the notion of a high-ranking warrior woman and so refused to believe it.  In doing so, the educative purpose of the museum is shamefully compromised and yet again, women are denied the opportunity to know our history.  Perez, sadly gives example after example after example.

This book is exhausting reading. It is hard not to have one’s feminist fury re-ignited by it.

Fury – rightful as it may be – is not the most useful outcome of this work. It is a very well considered, well researched, evidence based discussion. I hope it can contribute now to a broader discussion which always, always, always considers ways in which data is defined only by a male view with female perspectives being either silenced or ‘othered’. If we want to understand and learn and plan in the most healthy and positive ways for humanity and our planet we need the best data and this means inclusive data that from which male bias is eradicated. I am taking a wild guess about which gender(s) are the most likely to take this opportunity on board…

Note all images copywrite Chatto

  • Personal anecdote: I once worked in a secure mental health environment.  The women complained they wanted paper towels back because the newly installed, air-blow hand driers had been fitted by a six foot three maintenance man. When the women tried to use the too-high driers, it caused water from their hands to run down their arms and make their sleeves soggy.  I have noticed ever since how stupid-high most air blowers are in women’s toilets.

The plan and the pitch

Should one name one central concept, a first principle, of cybernetics, it would be circularity.

Heinz Von Foerster 1992

On Saturday 5th January 2019 The Guardian Newspaper Review* carried an eight-page cover story feature. The piece was a 2019 month by month breakdown of ‘books to look forward to’ and important dates to note.  For example, in May 2019 The Book of Science and Antiquities by Thomas Keneally will be published by Sceptre, while August marks the bicentenary of the birth of Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick.

Each month this blog will ponder/reflect/muse upon one of the allegedly noteworthy dates suggested by the article. At least one of the suggested ‘books to look forward to’ will be reviewed.

My selection will, to a large extent, be influenced by what calls out to me as a vegan, leftie, Guardian reading, disabled, lesbian feminist, academic and latterly hobby writer but I will at least make an effort to leave my comfort zone and select from the range of fiction, non-fiction and poetry books. 

Why bother? 

Primarily (though not exclusively as I will come to later) it is because I have a complicated relationship to the Saturday Guardian Review supplement.  Once upon a time, as some of the best stories begin, I aspired to be the kind of person drawn to the broad range of books it included: the latest tome on Kantian philosophy or the History of Mathematics, or the multi-award nominated debut literary novel about fishing by a Spanish hermit whereabouts currently unknown.  Only… I was a crime girl, through and through.  A compulsive reader since childhood, I was hooked by the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, and moved onto Agatha Christie before I reached my teens. My love of the thrilling murder mystery, in most of its forms, never since wavered. Over the years the Guardian Review sometimes led to crime authors new to me but, mostly the weekly supplement had content about all the books I might read if only I had the time. 

I felt more worthy just by reading the Review and that was a good enough short cut to intellectual exercise of my mind. 

And then crime fiction and I had a falling out.  I am an aspiring writer.  Since the slog of completing my un-thrilling doctoral thesis, I have had some small but yes-thrilling publishing success in journals, books, in newspapers and through guest blog posts.  I have performed my stories to lovely gracious audiences and, my work has even featured in an art installation.  Of course, the book I ache to write well is my crime story.

Crimefest

Crimefest 10 year celebration promotional t-shirt image

One of the best Christmas gifts I received in December 2017 was a full three-day event pass to Crimefest 2018.  Crimefest is a convention for crime readers and according to their website ‘die-hard fanatics’ of the genre. As one of their target audience, I had wanted to go to it for several years. Big name crime authors would be speaking at the event and they were, of course, something to look forward to but the panel itinerary was the biggest draw.  I want to be a better writer. I am enthusiastic to study my craft and keen to learn from those who write and publish.  I carefully marked each panel I would attend and despite my partner’s gentle reminders about the usefulness of the clutter free Kindle and the flimsiness of our bank account, knew I would come home with a great many new books.  In fact, buoyed by the remarkably un-starry, friendly and approachable Lee Child’s affirmation that he reads literally hundreds of books every year and assertion that only great readers become great writers I bought every single book from every author of every panel I attended. 

It was an impressively large stack covering cosy mystery, whodunit, locked room, police procedural, forensic crime and psychological thriller.  My bedside table looked like a branch of Waterstones. 

And this is where, in the best tradition of whodunits, things took an unexpected turn.  Many of the books I read were terrible.  Some sloppy stories, poorly told with little imagination or craft.  Many were boring or stretched credibility to its limit. Far too many of them involved harm to women either in the sense of them being the victims (over and over and over) or in the portrayal of women as weak, impressionable, to blame, complicit and deserving of their often laboured over gruesome fate.  Of course, I am aware of the discussion on Twitter and in other arenas (see for example discussion related to the Staunch Book Prize) in support of fiction that does not portray women thus but only in immersing myself so deeply in my preferred genre had I seen the Emperor’s new clothes.  The genre sells and publishers like to sell books, but it really doesn’t mean they are actually very good books.  I was glad to get to the final novel in my selection. Genred-out, I stopped working on my own crime novel and parked an idea for a sequel. 

True story:  several years before I was old enough to own an adult ticket I had out-grown the children’s library with its tiny brown Bakelite chairs and troughs of picture books and was allowed by my Mum, who happened to be a library assistant, to sneak into the adult section.  With a firm warning that I needed to be quiet and unobtrusive, I was parked by the Dewy categorised 920s where I could not be seen.  I sat in my hiding place devouring the biographies of a broad range of interesting folk. I never properly thanked my Mum or her colleagues for failing to properly re-shelve my current read which I hid so it would still be there on my return.  Thanks Mum, I owe you – for such a lot but in this context, specifically for giving me the opportunity to read about, amongst others, Douglas Bader, Winston Churchill and Tallulah Bankhead at what is often called an impressionable age.  I am sure each of these influenced the adult I became and I am sure there is a story waiting just in the wings ready to be told, but perhaps that is for another time. 

The point is, at nine years old, my horizons were expanded by reading beyond the confines of Mallory Towers.

Finding myself years later in an unfamiliarly barren fiction landscape I knew it was time to force a broadened approach to my reading habits, only without my Mum deciding where I should go.

The Pitch

MC Escher Lithograph 1948

So this blog and its ambition is an exercise in self-development but it is more than that – it is a pitch to the editors of the Guardian.  If I had a more established writers profile the pitch would have been delivered to Guardian team members Sian Cain (@siancain) editor of Guardian Books and chief book writer Lisa Allardice (@LisaAllardice) with a suggestion of a monthly page in their well-regarded supplement. I imagine the audacity of such a pitch might have raised a smile – if they even bothered to read it. 

This blog – my review of the reviews in the Review – might, on the other hand, persuade the editors next year to allow me a monthly column in which I review their 2020 Literary Calendar.  I am sure there will be one because the Guardian Review is fond of its lists. The Escher-esque circularity of the idea tickles me.

However, and coming back to my complicated relationship with the Review, it has so far helped my literary learning only in the negative. Since July 2018 and while taking a leave of absence from my favoured genre of reading, I have exclusively read positively Guardian reviewed books.  There was no method to my choice and they tended to be largely but not exclusively novels, many of them featured in fastest selling/best in category/prize nominated/prize winning/genre-busting/huge this year lists so favoured of the Guardian.  The Guardian reviews sat cosily, matily, alongside reviews of many of the same books which featured in other newspapers. Those reviews sometimes then appeared in later editions of the books marketing materials (see ‘Droste effect’). 

The Journey

During this time I have come to wonder about what influences its choices because, to date, I haven’t read a single book that seemed to me to have earned the often ebullient commendations.  Not a single one.  It could, I suppose, be argued that my considerable investment in reviewed books was money well spent.

I have read well-written material and have learned about putting words together so that they are deliciously evocative to read but that does not necessarily equate to producing an interesting story

I have learned how to destroy a truly breath-taking story through a timid editor perhaps too afraid to tell a famous author to lose twenty thousand words. I have learned that utilising a particular literary technique those in the know will understand as incredibly clever does not lead to a book anyone – other than judging panels – will think is a good read.  I also learned that misogyny sells in genres other than crime and it still sucks.

Eight pages is a lot of copy.  Perhaps someone in the book or journalism business might interpret the lead story of the Saturday 5th January 2019 Guardian Review differently to that of a mere reader but as that mere reader, it speaks to me of gravitas, of something to take notice of and of something trustworthy but still, my recent experience raised nagging questions.

Why are these books, as opposed to the dozens lined up by publishers to print in the forthcoming year, ones to look forward to? Who says so and why?

Given they will also feature as a part of my journey (Guardian readers love a ‘journey’) I will be paying attention to the monthly ‘dates of note’ included in the Literary Calendar and using them as a guide to expand my breadth and depth of literary knowledge. Some of the dates added give the impression of being almost self-explanatory but are they?  Why, for example, should I note that 23rd June is the bicentenary of the publication of Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book including “Rip Van Winkle”?  What should, in particular, I take from note of the 31st July centenary of Primo Levi’s birth?  I wonder too about how this element of the calendar came about.  Is there some very learned booky type person I should admire for their startlingly expansive knowledge of literary history or some junior intern told to Google for filler.  You see my point?

I intend to ask the editors (sending them a link to this blog) and if I get a response, I will discuss it here.

*The article can also be found on-line https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/06/2018-year-in-books